The Grub Street Diet

Cookbook Author Ian Knauer Is Inspired by Flounder Roe, Disdains Monkey-Poo Coffee

Writer Ian Knauer (and his dogs) in the kitchen.
Writer Ian Knauer (and his dogs) in the kitchen. Photo: Melissa Hom

Thankfully, we caught food writer Ian Knauer while he was in New York. We say that because he spends a big chunk of his time at a family farm in Pennsylvania: “A couple summers ago, we were down there and we realized that we were in the middle of farmland but there was no food to eat anywhere,” he says. “It was all ethanol corn and stuff like that. So we started a vegetable garden. It was a huge success. We ate from it all summer.” Now he spends his days turning that moment of inspiration into his first cookbook, tentatively titled The Farm: Stories and Recipes of an American Family, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will release in 2012. (If you don’t want to wait that long, you can also catch him on episodes of Unique Eats, which just began its new season on Cooking Channel.) So what’s in the book? “Just classic American food, but done really well,” Knauer says. “There’s a meatloaf in there, for instance, but it’s like a totally awesome meatloaf. You’d be proud to serve it to your friends.” Knauer talked to us about tasting the book’s recipes — and everything else he ate, naturally — for this week’s edition of the New York Diet.

Friday, December 10
My days always start with coffee, black coffee. I drink that before I do anything else usually. And then I take the dogs out. I have two dogs, so they … you know, they have to pee. And then by the time I get back from that the caffeine is starting to set in, so I’m a little buzzy, so I have to eat something. I’ll eat whatever looks good for breakfast. It could be cold pizza, but that day I ate a fried-egg sandwich with mayonnaise and ketchup and hot sauce. And the hot sauce that I had was made by my friend Lucinda, who makes this really great Jamaican-style hot sauce. Hot sauce is probably a constant in my diet. I eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s nothing to jump-start your day like some habañeros. And some coffee.

Sometimes I make my own hot sauce, which is fun. I grow a lot of peppers at the farm. They actually take a while, hot peppers. I guess because they need … they’re tropical plants. But sometime around early October, I have pounds and pounds and pounds of these fiery peppers, so I make them into hot sauce. And that hot sauce, I let it age for six to nine months. It keeps getting more mellow and mild and complex. That recipe’s going to be in the book. There are a couple of different ways to do it. The way that I make mine is, I pulse up the peppers with a whole ton of roasted garlic, and then I make a — what’s the word I’m thinking of? A pickling liquid! So it’s vinegar, and some water and some sugar and some salt. The chopped-up peppers and roasted garlic sit in that brine, basically, for a couple months. Then I strain it, so the vinegar sucked up all the peppery juices, and that is the hot sauce, basically.

For lunch, I did a lot of recipe testing for the book. Right after breakfast, I basically start cooking, and that day I made a recipe called Apple Cider Sticky Ribs that uses apple cider as a base for a barbecue sauce. And that takes a while to make, so I rubbed the ribs down the night before with garlic, and then got them right in the oven. I also tested a red-cabbage slaw with jalapeños and green apples, and I made some Brussels-sprout chips with roasted garlic. I peel the leaves off the Brussels sprouts, and then toss them with oil and garlic, and then put them in the oven until they get crispy. So they’re like these bites … they taste kind of like popcorn, almost. They’re really good. They’re a huge hit. Everybody loves them. And then I made a pumpkin cake. It’s a recipe I found from my grandmother. I have these old recipe cards of hers. I don’t remember eating this cake when I was a kid, but she was a really great baker, like many women of her day. This pumpkin cake uses fresh pumpkin, so you start out with a pumpkin, basically. And it’s so moist on the inside. It’s really good. And then, when I tried it, I tried it by itself, and then I fried a piece in a cast-iron skillet in some master fat, which I keep in the fridge, and that only made it better!

I have a mason jar that I keep in my fridge, and every time I cook something that renders fat, like chicken, or bacon, or a piece of pork or beef or whatever, I just pour it right in there, and I use that to cook with. It is awesome, actually. It has so much flavor. It doesn’t just take like one animal. It tastes like animals. I got that name from … what’s that restaurant in Williamsburg, Fatty ‘Cue? They serve the same concept, because he serves it with pieces of toast, and a little ramekin of melted master fat. It’s something ridiculous like eight bucks, I don’t know how much it costs. It’s funny, and it’s brilliant for a restaurant to do that, because then they’re using up all their waste. It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, like schmaltz basically. Cooking with all the stuff you have in your fridge and your pantry. Master fat: I think it’s the next big trend. It’s good with sweet stuff; like this cake, for instance, got really crispy and a little funky, so that kind of helps the balance of the sweet. So after I ate all that stuff I wasn’t really hungry.

After that I met up with my wife, who works crazy hours, so I barely get to see her these days. She works in television production, and she is a food stylist. She basically cooks the food for the TV show. You know the magic of television? She’s the magic. Right now she’s working on this show, and it’s seven days a week, like fourteen to sixteen hours a day. She’s pretty tired, but we met at Bar(n) on Flatbush Avenue, which is next to that restaurant Farm. And I had beef tartare at the bar, which was heavy on the mustard, which made it pretty good, and a whiskey. Then I wandered over to an auction for a farm called Evolutionary Organics. They sell stuff at the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza, but they had a fire recently, so a bunch of customers kind of got together and put items up to auction. It’s another way to actually support local farms, instead of just buying their stuff, when they’re in trouble. I put a six-course dinner for ten people featuring their produce up for auction, so that sold for almost five-hundred bucks. That was cool. While I was there I had a Brooklyn Lager.

Saturday, December 11
After coffee, I went to the farmers’ market and bought a ton of white vegetables. I’ll tell you why later. And then I bought some bread flour from upstate, and I bought a lot of fish. I don’t usually buy fish from the farmers’ market, but I was kind of inspired by what they had. So, I bought some squid, I bought a piece of smoked bluefish, and I bought a pound of flounder roe, which I had never seen before. But I love shad roe, so I thought I’d give it a shot. So when I got home, I fried up one of the flounder roe lobes, ate that with some scrambled eggs — that stuff is delicious! If you ever see flounder roe, you should buy some. It’s smooth and silky, and it’s not at all fishy, but it’s kind of briny. For me, it’s so much fun to discover something new that I’ve never had before. It was really cool to try it.

Then lunch was kind of a wash, ‘cause I ate a big breakfast, but I ended up testing more recipes for the book. So I ate an early dinner, and I had mustard-stuffed venison loin. I have a freezer full of venison because I go deer hunting, and I ate that with some potato and Cheddar hash cakes, which are kind of crispy on the outside and melty on the inside. That’s the cool thing about testing recipes for the book: I’m working all day, but then I end up with dinner.

Sunday, December 12
Sunday I got up early and made a loaf of bread from the flour I got from the farmer’s market. I usually make a loaf of bread every week and then eat it a slice at a time. Every few months I teach a bread class in the city, so I like to practice what I preach. Once you learn how to make great bread, you’ll never buy it again, because it’s easy and it’s delicious. I also brew beer, so I’ve been baking the spent beer grains into the bread, and it makes for some really outstanding loaves of bread. They’re moist and they’re kind of malty like the beer is, and they toast up really nicely. So I had some bread and some coffee for breakfast on Sunday. I teach the bread class in Soho, at a place called the Culinary Loft, and it’s called Bread 101. I think the next one’s in March. We do one every season.

In the afternoon I wandered down to a neighbor’s who was having a cocktail party. She owns a PR firm, so there were a whole bunch of writers there, so it was kind of fun to catch up with them. I made myself a ham sandwich with mayo and cranberry relish. Then came the dessert table, and I couldn’t stop eating these hazelnuts that were soaked in honey. They were really good. I have a soft spot for anything that has honey in it, because I have beehives at the farm. But I kept slicing cheese and covering it with these honey hazelnuts. I kind of filled up on that. You know what was interesting? I met some lady at this cocktail party who lives in Brooklyn, and they’re starting an edible forest in their backyard. It’s supposed to be like a self-sustaining permaculture, so it’s a garden that you can eat from that you don’t have to take care of. They’ll put mushroom spores in soil, and they’ll just take care of themselves. That’s the theory, anyway. But the thing is, they tested the soil and it’s full of lead, so they have to de-lead the soil. Apparently they know how to do this. They plant a certain kind of mushrooms, and the mushrooms soak up the lead in the soil. I wouldn’t eat those mushrooms, and I kind of got the impression from the conversation that they were eating these mushrooms, which doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. Like, leaded mushrooms. It’s like eating the maraschino cherry honey from Red Hook. You probably don’t want to do that.

So, after that, I got home and I made some braised squid stuffed with the flounder roe, and that was pretty good. Squid’s one of those things that you either have to cook it for a minute or cook it for an hour, and this cooked for an hour. And it was in a tomato sauce, and I really wanted to use home-canned tomatoes, because I can tomatoes in the summer from the farm, but I didn’t have any. They’re all down at the farm. So I ended up using a box of tomato and pepper soup. You know those boxes of soup that you can buy at the store? It wasn’t as good as it would’ve been with home-canned tomatoes, but it wasn’t bad. It was pretty good, actually, in the end. So I had that, and probably a bottle of white wine. That’s exactly how I usually eat, because it’s fun to do that. Once you get to be a certain level of cook, you can just open your fridge and cook dinner. That’s the goal, I think.

Monday, December 13
Black coffee, and a slice of the beer-grain bread with honey from the farm, and then ground flax seed over that. I know flax seed is good for you, but it tastes good too. It kind of sticks to the roof of your mouth, so in moderation it’s delicious.

I spent most of Monday prepping for this cocktail party on Tuesday that I cooked for. This is where the white food comes in, because all the food at the cocktail party was white. It was kind of a challenge to come up with eight passed hors d’oeuvres that are white on white on white, and still make them delicious. One of them was a parsnip borscht, so it was a borscht made with parsnips instead of beets, so it was white. And then that was gelled with carrageenan, which is seaweed, and served on a parsnip chip with whipped sour cream. There was a shot of hot vichyssoise with a mozzarella grilled cheese — I was going to serve the soup cold, but it’s been so cold outside that I warmed it up, and everyone seemed to enjoy that. There was a tarte flamb—e, also a homemade jasmine rice cracker topped with a poached bay scallop and draped with lardo, which was pretty good. Then there was a pickled cauliflower situation with gelled white balsamic and parmesan crinkle chip. The sweets were a coconut mousse in a mini ice cream cone, and white-chocolate-lime cheesecake bites. It ended up being really good food. That’s pretty much what I ended up eating all day because I was prepping and tasting, so that ended up being both lunch and dinner for me. I don’t really love doing parties, because there’s so much schlepping involved, but it’s a fun, creative process, and I really like these people, so I was cooking for their holiday party, basically. I do a couple a year. In fact, when I was at Gourmet, I used to cook for the magazine’s holiday party, too. Nobody wanted to do it, because you’re cooking for all the people who work at Gourmet, and they’re all food snobs, basically. I started doing it when I was really young. I walked into Ruth [Reichl]’s office and was like, hey, mind if I do this? And she was like, Yeah, sure, go for it. It was kind of a rough start, and I kind of learned as I went, but toward the end I made some really good food. It’s fun to jump into the shark tank every once in a while.

But because I did that all day, I just kind of picked and didn’t eat very much, and then I think for dinner I had a bottle of red wine. It wasn’t expensive red wine. Wine is like coffee for me: I love a great, expensive bottle of wine. But it could be a $9 bottle of merlot, and given the situation that can be just as good. Like coffee … what’s that stuff that like, monkeys eat and then they poop it out and then they roast it? You know which one I mean? [We do! Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, is made from beans that have passed through the civet monkey’s digestive tract.] I’m sure that that’s delicious, but I’ll also take a cup of diner coffee and be totally satisfied with that. So yeah, a cheap bottle of wine for dinner.

Tuesday, December 14
Coffee in the morning, then I took the dog for a run, because I had to sweat out the bottle of red wine that I had for dinner. Then I got back and had some scrambled eggs with hot sauce, and a slice of the beer-grain bread, toasted.

Lunch was a sandwich at Murray’s while I was waiting for the cheese monger to thinly slice a pound of lardo for me, which takes like 25 minutes. The sandwich was prosciutto and mozzarella with basil. It was just the one that was on top of the pile, ‘cause I was hungry.

Dinner was basically whatever the food was for the event. I just stood there and tasted in the kitchen and made sure everything was good, and that kind of fills you up if you do that for a couple of hours. I have a staff, and they take care of front of the house, and then I’m in the kitchen cooking. I was cooking up a storm. For a party this size, it takes about two days of cooking. Once you get over 80, things get a little crazy. You just have to pump out so much food that it gets hectic. I prefer parties that are around 50 or a little smaller, because then I can really focus on the food, and not feel like I’m just pumping food out of the kitchen. Instead I can really make everything perfect, which, of course, makes everybody at the party happy, too.

Wednesday, December 15
Coffee in the morning, and then I made an omelette with feta and master fat, and I ate that with hot sauce and a slice of bread. Then I went to meet Hunter Lewis, who’s taking over the Bon Appétit test kitchens. We met at Stumptown Coffee, and I got a small coffee. It was one of those situations where the barista says, These beans are from some mountain in Colombia, and you’re like, Wow, great, it’s coffee. I’m the opposite of a coffee snob. As I mentioned before, I don’t care if it’s from a primate’s butt or New Jersey. Whatever. Now that I think of it, I don’t know which one of those would be considered gourmet these days, given how much hype there is about New Jersey.

And then, oh! Then I stopped by the studio where my wife is working for lunch, and I ate a big bowl of sautéed beef with peppers and onions, and I squirted a ton of Sriracha over that, and that was pretty good. They shoot like three episodes a day, so that was left over from the first episode, and they just kind of put it out for family meal. So I just happened to stop there at the right time, and I ate with my wife and the rest of the kitchen crew. We’re all friends, actually. Everybody hangs out with each other outside of work, too, so it was fun to say hi.

For dinner, I made pasta using leftovers from the cocktail party. So the base of the sauce was vichyssoise with a sautéed leek. Then I mashed up the last of the flounder roe and let that cook really gently to thicken the sauce, then I added some bay scallops and a handful of finely chopped lardo, and I tossed it with some linguine, and sprinkled some dried bhut jalokia pepper over that. It’s like the hottest pepper on the planet. It’s like 100 times hotter than a habañero. It’s like, crazy hot, but if you’re a chili-head, that’s what you’re going for. So the pasta ended up being really good. It was a take on a dish they serve at Marea with the uni and the lardo and all of that great stuff. It had all of those deep flavors. It was satisfying. I was pretty happy with myself. I’ll make it again whenever I get some more flounder roe.

Cookbook Author Ian Knauer Is Inspired by Flounder Roe, Disdains Monkey-Poo